In another of our articles marking the 75th commemoration of the end of World War II, we discover the remarkable story of ANNE GRIFFITH-JONES. Miss Griff, as she was fondly called, moved to Singapore after the first World War, survived internment in an occupied Singapore and went on to leave a considerable legacy. Fiona Ritson tells the story.
“Our children and grandchildren are sure, one day, to be asking us when World War II began. Well, World War II began and finished in the Far East.” – The Straits Times, 8 December 1945.
So here we are, those grandchildren. Seventy-five years on, this snippet serves as a reminder – if one were needed – that the invasions of Manchuria in 1932 and China in 1937 were the harbingers of WWII, and that a global event plays out differently across the world.
But of course, the chain of events that led to WWII started farther back, in the turmoil left by WWI. One person who lived courageously through both – experiencing the first war in the West and the second in Southeast Asia – was the indomitable Anne Griffith-Jones, founder of Tanglin Trust School.
For a story of resilience that shines brightly across the war years and down the generations, look no further than the full (but not always free) life of “Miss Griff”.
From her young adult years, Anne Griffith-Jones was a force for change. In the UK in 1913, she became Swansea’s local secretary for the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies and an active figure in the British suffragette movement. After WWI broke out, she worked in a munitions factory as a welfare officer, for which she was awarded an MBE. Unbeknown to her family – who no doubt would not have approved of it as a hobby for a young lady – Anne liked to play football. After the war, she joined the Welsh ladies football team. Her love of sport and physical fitness was to serve her well through the trials of the coming years.
The pull of the peninsula
In 1923, Anne travelled to Singapore to see her brother for a three-month holiday. The rest is history. “The Malay Peninsula attracted her imagination,” wrote former Reuters correspondent John Owen-Davies in 2006. “So strong was the pull that she stayed for the rest of her life.” In Anne’s words, “From day one I was greatly attracted to its beauty, sunshine and the warmth of its people.”
Miss Griff soon put down permanent roots in Singapore, founding a primary school for expatriate children in 1925. It opened in the Tanglin Club and offered a British-style education to children up to eight years of age. Starting with just five students, Tanglin Day School soon became popular and expanded rapidly. In 1934, she opened a boarding school in the Cameron Highlands for children aged eight to 13; it also became very successful.
To Singapore … and Changi
For the first couple of years after WWII broke out, life went on relatively normally in Malaya and Singapore. However, air raids over the peninsula began in December 1941, and the accompanying land invasion of Malaya made quick gains in the north.
The order to evacuate Malaya came when the Japanese troops were already at Penang, about 200 miles north of the Cameron Highlands School. Staff and children made their way down from the highlands; eventually, they found their way to Singapore, which many still thought was impregnable.
Miss Griff opened a new school for these children at Nassim Road. This was mainly to enable mothers to continue their work with St John’s Ambulance and hospital services. Their classes were almost entirely conducted in slit trenches – part of the defence work carried out on the island – while the Japanese air forces dominated the skies.
Once the last child had left Singapore, the staff took on war work while awaiting passage on overcrowded ships to India and South Africa. Miss Griff stayed, continuing her work in a local hospital. She shared this anecdote, from the day before the Allied surrender of Singapore (15 February 1942), with John Owen-Davies:
“… I was driving down the Orchard Road when a Japanese plane came from nowhere and strafed me. It was an exhilarating experience – just like a game of hockey when one is about to score. I turned down a side street to throw him off.”
Not long after, her unflappable spirit would be put to a lengthier test on the 15-mile march to Changi Prison and her subsequent three-and-a-half years of civilian internment. This extract comes from Joe Allgrove, a planter in the Johore Volunteer Engineers; he is describing the march to Changi Prison in March 1942:
“En route we passed a column of English women marching to Changi gaol, some fifteen miles, to be civilian internees. It was around 11am and hot. They were marching briskly and singing. Among them was Miss Griffith-Jones who had run the school at Tanglin and another in the Cameron Highlands.”
John Owen-Davies records the last part of their journey in his 2006 article. “As the bedraggled column approached Changi, Anne Griffith-Jones said, ‘Come on, girls. Let’s march properly in columns and sing “There will always be an England” to give our men a lift.’ Miss Griff knew this action would lift the spirits of the 2,000 men, Allied soldiers and civilians already in Changi. She was correct. The men on the other side of the walls cheered themselves hoarse as the column swung into the prison.”
Although most women and children had been evacuated, about 400 civilian women and children remained at the time of the surrender. Either they hadn’t obtained shipping berths in time to escape or, like Miss Griff, they’d decided not to leave.
Together with the civilian men, they were crowded into Changi Prison. It had been designed to hold about 600 inmates but was now accommodating four times that number. The women and children occupied one wing of the building.
Despite the overcrowding, the internees were in some ways fortunate to be housed in this “modern” prison. It had efficient sewerage, the food was adequate (if basic) during the first year, and civilian internees were allowed to administer themselves.
Boredom and lack of communication with the outside world, and with the male internees (which included boys above twelve), were challenges around which the women could organise themselves, and they did so with creativity and cunning. Male and female groups were allowed to perform concerts for each other, and in this way messages were passed in “family code” through play scripts or song lyrics.
Messages in quilts
Similarly, a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, organised a quilt-making project, ostensibly to pass the time but also to pass information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive.
In these early months of imprisonment, three signature quilts were made by the women internees; they are known as the British, Australian and Japanese quilts. In a shrewd move, Mrs Mulvany gained the permission of the Japanese commandant to pass the quilts – made for the “wounded” as stated on the back of each one – to Changi hospitals, by also making one for the wounded Japanese. It’s not known if the quilts ever travelled further than this, or how many men actually saw them. (They’re now held at the British Red Cross UK office and the Australian War Memorial.)
All the women in Changi were given the opportunity to contribute a square to the quilts. Some squares contained simple patriotic imagery, others had concealed messages – the meaning of many are now lost to us – and others were decorative. Miss Griff contributed to the quilt made for the Australian Red Cross, creating square 34. It’s believed to show an Orang Asli warrior in the Cameron Highlands. She was no doubt imagining herself back at her school, in the cool breezes of the mountains.
Education was clearly never far from her mind. Miss Griff put the same skills she used to run her own schools into organising a makeshift camp school for the internees at Changi.
Schooling then continued, when possible, in the Sime Road Camp where they were moved in May 1944. In early 1945, a group of boys and girls secretly sat for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination; six students passed, including one girl, Mary Winters. It’s an incredible feat that they were able to concentrate on anything other than their continual hunger; food supplies had become increasingly scarce. As mentioned by HR Cheeseman, in his Review of the Education Programme at the Internment Camp:
“It was difficult to find a suitable school site in Sime Road. This open camp, with the limitation of shade and the need for cultivation in every available space, was much worse off in this respect than the enclosed Changi Prison.”
With 21 acres under cultivation, the camp’s gardeners provided vital services. To these efforts, Miss Griff brought some additional vitality. Reverend John Haytor, in his book A Priest in Prison: Four years of life in Japanese-occupied Singapore, recalls her instructions to a group of women gardeners about pulling off the leaves of sweet potatoes:
“…’You are to go to the bottom of the hill at the back of Hut 1, strip from the bottom upwards and the men will follow!’ I was told that you could hear a gale of laughter from each hut as the story travelled round the Women’s Camp.”
The end of the war
Media flourished in the outside world during this time. Households crosschecked newspapers and turned to the foreign service radio broadcasts to learn of the changing war situation. In the camp, where possession of a radio was punishable by death, the internees still managed to get some news; for most, though, the end was unexpected. As HR Cheeseman explains:
“In the closing months of internment we had little to eat and too much to do to be very optimistic. The rumour-monger thrived in these conditions and the camp was getting to the condition that we didn’t know what to believe… Peace rumours filtered in on 11th August. We knew that they were true when our forced labour on tunnels was stopped on 18th August and our rations were increased.”
The Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on board an American battleship, Missouri, at Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945; this marked the official end of WWII. Two weeks later, on 12 September 1945, another ceremony was held at the Municipal Building of Singapore (now City Hall), which was accepted by Lord Louis Mountbatten. It officially ended the Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia.
“For some days the authorities very wisely restrained us from leaving the camp,” wrote HR Cheeseman. “But no restraint could be placed on the enthusiasm of our friends in Singapore. They poured into the camp bringing with them gifts…”
Back to school
Miss Griff survived and went to the UK to recover. She returned to Malaya in 1946. There, with Miss Armstrong (another internee and Tanglin teacher), she reopened Tanglin School in Singapore and the Cameron Highlands Boarding School.
There was extensive damage to both, and limited manpower and materials for repairs. Food and school supplies were also difficult to obtain as many items were rationed, but both schools reopened in 1947. “We only had grey pencils for art,” recalls one alumnus; “no colouring pencils or paints!”
These relatively minor deprivations undoubtedly would have been laughable to Miss Griff. She was a stalwart supporter of education even when times became much harder, during the challenges of the Malayan Emergency. The journey to lasting peace was far from over for the Malay Peninsula; however, the series of events that led to an independent and peaceful future were set in motion by the war.
In 1958, Miss Griff retired to a small bungalow in the Cameron Highlands. The same year, she was conferred the OBE for services to education; in 1962, the PJK (Pingat Jasa Kebaktian) by the Sultan of Pahang for meritorious service. She lived out the rest of her life in the part of the world where she had experienced so much, given so much and where her positivity, energy and strength of character still shine brightly through her legacy – Tanglin Trust School.
In the words of John Owen-Davies, “The story of Miss Griff, as she was known affectionately in Singapore and Malaya in pre-independence days and when both countries gained independence, is one of courage and dedication.”